As state officials prepare to unveil potential routes for restored commuter rail service to New Bedford and Fall River next month, the mayors of those cities and Governor Deval Patrick are calling the projected $1.4 billion project a crucial step in boosting the long-struggling fortunes of those areas.
Experience in other Massachusetts cities where commuter rail service has been restored since 1994 - Brockton, Newburyport, and Worcester - demonstrates that train service to the Hub can be a big shot in the arm economically. In all three cities, since the year commuter train service returned, real estate values have climbed faster than state and county averages by most measures, in some cases much faster.
While commuter rail restoration as a strategy for economic development may be less than clear cut, the mayors of New Bedford and Fall River remain passionate that it is key to sparking their future economic growth.
"Anywhere that commuter rail has gone in, it brings vitality into the city," Mayor Scott Lang of New Bedford said in a phone interview. "What it does is bring a tremendous economic development opportunity. I think it opens our city up."
Mayor Robert Correia of Fall River has been just as enthusiastic. He predicted commuter rail will offer better access to jobs in metropolitan Boston for city residents and an appealing ride to Fall River's Battleship Cove tourist attraction for Hub area residents.
Early next month, state transportation planners are due to identify their preferred routes for the New Bedford-Fall River extension. The main options are using existing Taunton rail lines to the Middleborough/Lakeville line; rebuilding an abandoned line through the Hockamock Swamp in Easton and Raynham; or connecting to the Attleboro-Providence line through Norton.
All three lines are being opposed by abutters, most heatedly in Easton and Norton. And whether the cash-strapped MBTA can afford South Coast rail - a big Patrick campaign promise in 2006 - is an open question.
Rail service was extended from Framingham to Worcester in September 1994 and from Ipswich to Newburyport in October 1998. Brockton got service when the Middleborough/Lakeville Old Colony line began operations in December 1997. Service had been cut on those lines between the 1950s and 1970s. But even after a decade, at the bricks-and-mortar level, it can be difficult to find many tangible signs of an economic boost clearly driven by rail service.
How much credit Worcester's 1,045 daily train riders deserve for an overall renaissance in a 175,000-person city undergoing a billion-dollar downtown overhaul is tricky to assess.
In Brockton, the neighborhoods around two of its three rail stations remain dominated by facilities such as warehouses, commercial bakeries and laundries, and Dumpster-unloading operations. Within a 2-minute walk of its downtown station, two loft-condominium complexes pitched to young professionals have recently opened. But their close neighbors remain an open-air used-car lot, a discount pornography shop, a scrapyard, and a can-redemption center.
And in Newburyport, where commuter rail ends a little more than a mile from a made-for-tourists waterfront downtown, a decade after the train came back, pizzeria owner Spiro Goulis is still waiting for the economic miracle. "To be honest, nothing, not a penny," Goulis said of the economic impact on his 30-year-old Leo's Sub Shop. The shop lies about 200 yards from the Newburyport commuter rail station, which opened in October 1998 and draws about 600 daily riders, according to the Massachusetts Bay Transportation Authority.
"It's a little strange," Goulis said.
One way all three cities have benefited is in real estate values, but commuter rail is hardly the sole factor. Roughly $1 billion has been committed to rebuilding Worcester's downtown since the city's rail line was restored, for example.
Still, measured since the year rail returned, residential real estate assessments in Worcester, Brockton, and Newburyport have grown 2 percent to 83 percent faster than the state average in that same time, Department of Revenue data show. Home sales prices reported by The Warren Group, a Boston realty-data provider, show average single-family home prices increased 20 percent to 30 percent faster in those cities than their county average, and condominium prices in Brockton and Worcester have tripled since rail returned.
While the cities have benefited from the extended boom that has only recently crested in the overall state real estate market, officials say there is no question rail service made the three cities more appealing to buyers.
Mayor James Harrington of Brockton said in a back-of-the-envelope estimate that he would attribute 25 percent to 30 percent of Brockton's growth since 1997 to commuter rail, the rest to overall state economic growth and Brockton-specific factors such as a strong food-manufacturing sector and a promised expansion of the city water supply this spring, which can help industry grow.
"We believe the rail has been an economic boon, and going forward, it could be even bigger," he said.
But for now, Harrington laments that there still does not seem to be a lot of positive spinoff development - such as restaurants or shops - around the SoCo Lofts downtown, which are a 36-minute train ride from South Station. "We haven't seen much of that at all," Harrington said. "We need a little more critical mass."
Robert Forrant, a professor in the Regional Economic and Social Development department at the University of Massachusetts at Lowell, said New Bedford and Fall River would definitely get a boost from commuter rail, but maybe not the transformation they seek.
"It's one of these things that is necessary, but not sufficient. It's part of a whole strategy," said Forrant, who has studied and written extensively about urban revitalization in New England's small cities.
Unless rail stations attract restaurants and stores where commuters spend money locally, Forrant said, "it's just people taking advantage of inexpensive real estate to sleep. That's not going to contribute a whole lot to the city's economy."
Boston Redevelopment Authority figures show the city provides about 680,000 jobs. But less than 10 percent of workers reach their jobs by commuter rail, MBTA data show. Forrant said he wonders how many more Boston workers are willing to commute more than 90 minutes a day in and out of Boston and live by a train schedule.
Given that the old mill cities and towns of Attleboro, Brockton, Fitchburg, Haverhill, Lawrence, Lowell, and Worcester have already pitched themselves as affordable communities for Boston-bound commuters, Forrant wonders how much of that demographic is left for Fall River and New Bedford.
"If you have all these cities that are within an hour of Boston that are competing to say, 'Come live in our city and ride to Boston,' Forrant said, " there're only so many people that are going to want to do that or take advantage of that."
Peter J. Howe can be reached at email@example.com.